Stone Cold City
Vision 3: Mean Streets
The Hydro-Wall, the perimeter barrier which had both protected and contained Steel City in the days when it was known as The Scrapyard, towered six stories above Jasmine as she stood at the train station. From the Wall came a protracted, shuddering sigh like the whisper of endlessly breaking surf; it reminded her, with an ambivalent fusion of sympathy and malice, of how far she was from her home and everything she knew—how far she was from the place where she belonged.
"It's no place for humans," her father would say whenever it came up, especially after letters and books arrived from her Uncle Kaos. "The Scrapyard's a place for Cybers and people who're already dead on the inside," he would tell her, insisting stubbornly on calling Steel City by its old, less flattering name. "But it's no place at all for humans."
But Jasmine was of a different character; she loved Alhambra as much as anyone, but she wasn't content with fishing and small-town living, like her father. Since her childhood, the seeds of adventure had been sowed within her fertile imagination—and Alhambra, sweet and temperate as it was, could never compare to the dazzling promise of that wild, glorious crop.
She knew, as much as she knew anything, that it was not the place where she was meant to live; just as well as she knew it was a place which she was meant to see.
Massive structures of steel and concrete reached skyward and joined above Jasmine's head as she walked through the behemoth gate. The space through which she passed was larger, itself, than any building she had seen before except the crumbling towers out in Alhambra's bay, and the gatehouse altogether was larger still. Crossing that threshold was like stepping into another world—the world where the great crumbling towers belonged—the world of cold steel, hard concrete, and keen artifice.
It was a world at once glorious and wretched, and it became clear in the span of an instant. Stepping within the boundaries of Steel City, Jasmine saw both the great Tower of Tiphares which Kaos had built reaching up to the base of the Tree of Life—the very modern icon of human achievement—in the same glimpse as the towering, queerly majestic drifts of rubbish and scrap which had once given the city its name.
Titanic mounds of trash rose ponderously all about the hard, keen outlines of the modern city's rigid, inorganic profile; more than twenty years under Kaos' supervision had begun to transform the squalor of which the city had long been both symbol and manifestation. It contrasted sharply both with the rich vitality of the Farms and with the haphazard irregularity of the great scrap heaps, both of which had been crucial sources of Steel City's raw materials.
The city proper, bounded by the great ring of rubbish separating it from the Hydro-Wall, sprawled about the Tower of Tiphares—Kaos' own testament to the power of engineering and human potential—his bridge which sought to span the void between the irreconcilable worlds of oppressive, insular utopia and subjugated urban netherworld. Outermost were the oldest buildings, many of them in sundry stages of collapse. A wave of organized renovation was working its sluggish way painstakingly through the city from its center, a ripple of ongoing urban renewal marking the boundary between the new Steel City and the crumbling remains of the Scrapyard's festered corpse.
The supremely elitist society of the sky-city, however, had collapsed even before the transformation of Tiphares into the Tree of Life, and the distopian masses of the Scrapyard had rushed upward through the Tower to fill that vacuum. For nearly two decades, the cities had been joined, and Scrapyard residents even had access to the orbital city Ketheres. Jasmine had heard from her mother about that counterpart to Tiphares at the other end of the Tree of Life—at the end which rose upward and upward from the Tower until it disappeared into the blue of the sky, and stretched away into the blackness of space.
Jasmine chastised herself for letting her mind wander as she was brought back to the present by a monstrous pothole over which she stumbled. She was crossing through, now, into the renovated central region of the city, but repairs to the street and sidewalk always lagged behind other construction work. All around her in the cooling red light and reaching shadows of late afternoon were the primitive embryonic forms of what would be, in time, new buildings; the quintessential Steel City building was startlingly, even jarringly symmetric in contrast to the Scrapyard-era structures all of patchwork concrete and almost organic piping. The old generation was haphazard; it had been reckless and poorly nourished, in its youth, and its age and hardships now showed clearly. By contrast, the new structures were stylized and artistic, made of clean, mathematically pure curves and lines and angles, all of which added up to a dramatic resultant. They were the buildings designed by people dreaming of what the future could be.
"The Director General can rebuild homes and streets and offices," declared a somewhat grandiose sign from the side of a freshly completed building some distance down the road. This pronouncement was written above an architectural schematic of the Tower of Tiphares, below which the sign continued, "but only you can rebuild our city!"
Jasmine regarded the poster curiously as she approached, studying in passing the detail of the unfamiliar style of drawing. "Volunteer at the Department of Peace and Public Works today!" suggested the poster in print smaller than its bold assertion, followed by what Jasmine took to be a street address—there was no such thing in Alhambra, nor any need for it, but she had seen the small signs designating various streets and avenues either by name or number since crossing into the New City.
At the next intersection, Jasmine turned right onto a wide, busy street. Sensing Jasmine's uneasiness, Skoll padded along protectively, close at her side, as they worked through the blended crowds of humans and Cyborgs. A ways up this road, she had been told by the nuclear train's conductor, was where she could find "Kansas 4"—and that bar was, in turn, where she had the best chance of finding her next objective.
Plip . . . plip . . . plip . . .
With each slow, racking breath, the world shuddered tenuously. It hung around Jasmine in tatters, ripped asunder and stitched together again so many times she sometimes had trouble remembering just how it was supposed to be; everything was disconnected, disjointed, held together feebly with cursory stitches.
Jasmine no longer felt her fingertips or her toes; she felt the cold, slow death in them, but they no longer felt like her body. Now they, too, were lifeless artifice. They were cunning, complicated, useless, inanimate components, and she knew that they had lost something vitally important—but she wasn't sure just what that had been. The moment was what she knew, until the past and future rushed over her, predatory, savage, and consumed her, whole, in a chaotic rush of dark, vertiginous exhilaration.
Jasmine sat, quietly, secretly straining to contain herself.
"Shit," cursed the Cyber, derrick-powerful alloy limbs twitching as he glared over the edges of his cards.
"Hey. Watch your language," answered a woman's voice from over Jasmine's shoulder, warningly.
The Cyber growled and threw his cards down. "Rrrgh... fine, okay, I fold. You can be a real pain in the—" he cut off and paused briefly, although Jasmine missed the look that made him hesitate.
"A real pain, Koyomi," he finished, fuming. "You'll get that cute kid of yours in trouble, if you keep teaching her to piss off Cybers."
"Niece," Koyomi corrected, quickly.
"Yeah. Niece," echoed the Cyber, standing to a towering stature, the crown of his head nearly brushing the ceiling; its clearance was more than four meters. He looked down at Jasmine from three times her height. "You be careful about what you learn from Koyomi, kid. You, and your little dog, too."
Skoll glared up at the colossal Cyber fearlessly and growled warningly, as though a cat up a tree had made threatening overtures; she was not only confident, but exceptionally cunning and very standoffish, as well. Little Skoll had been something of a runt when Jasmine found her—but with affection, care, and no worries of going hungry, she had grown amazingly. Now a yearling, she was quickly catching up even on the largest dogs kept in the city; she had simply been a late bloomer—a condition which, in the wild, would have promised nothing more surely than a short life.
Jasmine, too, had grown. Little of that growth had shown as added height; she was still shy of five feet. But in the months since her arrival at Steel City, in some way, everything had changed. She had seen real, complete buildings like the ruins in the Alhambra bay had once been—she had also witnessed real, brutal, criminal violence for the first time, and more than a few times since. She could only imagine how the Scrapyard had been, if Steel City was a vast improvement, and everyone seemed to agree that it was.
Living with her "Aunt" Koyomi—she called everyone who had been friends with her mother "Aunt" or "Uncle"—starting even the same day she arrived, Jasmine had met members of the mercenary police force of Hunter-Warriors. They were frequent patrons of "Kansas 4," where Koyomi's adoptive father still spent his days and evenings. Koyomi was running it, having set aside her journalistic pursuits, and she set Jasmine to waitressing.
"If I know those two," Koyomi had said in reference to Jasmine's parents, "they don't want me turning their kid into a slacker."
Most of the Hunter-Warriors were friends of Koyomi, and a few old men had been patrons of the bar long enough to remember Koyomi as a toddler. It was weeks before Jasmine could get through a day without startling some old-timer who had been around in those days. They were the ones who remembered Koyomi's childhood also remembered the Madness of Zapan and that girl Ido had brought one day—that girl like nothing the Scrapyard had ever seen.
But as much as she enjoyed meeting them—especially the ones who remembered her mother—the Hunter-Warriors were by no means the people Jasmine had most wanted to see. After Koyomi, the first person out of her mother's stories who Jasmine had met in Steel City (thanks to Koyomi's vast web of connections) was the one she was most ambivalent about: Vector, Chief of the Department of Trade. When the city was still called the Scrapyard, Jasmine remembered from the stories, Vector had been a Broker: someone who profited by helping the Factory, the long arm of Tiphares, capitalize upon the suffering of people living on the surface. Now in his 70s, Vector worked for Kaos, keeping watch over sharks like the one he had been in his younger days—under Kaos' careful supervision, himself.
When the elderly Chief Vector saw Jasmine, he clutched at his chest and all but fell out of his chair, staring. Koyomi stood close behind Jasmine, leaning against the door frame and grinning her characteristic impertinence. It wasn't until some time later that Jasmine began to suspect Koyomi had only set up the meeting to enjoy Vector's reaction.
Jasmine remembered from the stories on which she grew up that her mother had held Vector responsible for the death of someone important to her—someone she had been willing to risk her life for. But in his old age and infirmity, he didn't strike Jasmine as being terribly dangerous. He seemed trapped and defeated.
Still, he was certainly less repentant than she would have liked, once he had recovered from the initial shock, and his lack of shame for the life he had led troubled her profoundly. She had always believed on some level that at the end of the story, the bested villain somehow sees the error of his ways and seeks to make amends for his misguided and evil deeds. In Vector, she saw a somewhat bitter old man, who was still a villain at heart—a villain under the yoke and harness of a life sentence to community service, but a villain all the same.
This is still no city of angels, she had to remind herself with some regret and the bitter aftertaste of disillusionment, and I guess I knew that; the rest of the world isn't like back home.
Plip . . . plip . . . plip . . . plip . . .
Jasmine lay half-senselessly as the meaning of "home" fled from her into some dark recess of ebbing consciousness. Half-real images danced behind her eyes as she stared into vaguely glittering false-color darkness. She saw bright, searing light scintillating golden red. She saw a deep, shimmering blue, deeper and richer than the bottomless darkness filling her eyes, but the darkness submerged it completely like a thick, black reality-slick spilling into and spreading over and smothering a daydream.
Beneath the murky, sooty gloom was only physical sensation, and that, too, was muffled, benumbed. The agony—hadn't it been an amazing, overwhelming thing, before?—was now like the rush of the surf. It murmured and whispered and hushed, always present but easily missed. She was certain there had been a time before, but without clarity, and there was only a fog when she tried to imagine what it had been; it was surely the same cold fog of death, she dimly suspected, that filled her limbs like a freezing breath.
As the concept coalesced, as the tainted blackness roiled away from her and whole thoughts appeared again, she was stricken by the impromptu recollection of her own breath, and with a weak gasp, she could almost remember why it so terrified her that each one seemed more difficult than the last—each one already a struggle of which she was only vicariously aware.
Jasmine strained to breathe slowly and evenly, making a conscious effort to keep her body loose and fluid, and those tasks required all the attention she dared devote to them.
"Go, Skoll!" Skoll growled reluctantly, but ducked her head in obedience and picked up the small child by his overalls, sparing only a quick glance at Jasmine before ducking with a wolf's agility past one of their aggressors. As much as she wanted to stay at Jasmine's side, she understood she had to bring the human-pup to Koyomi—to safety. Kin of Jasmine, after all, were her own by extension, and in their pack of two, Jasmine was without dispute the alpha, as she had been since Skoll's earliest distinct memories.
Jasmine let out a deliberately slow breath.
She had been returning from a walk with Skoll and the youngest of her aunt Shumira's utterly astonishing string of children, still a good distance from home, when Skoll indicated that they were being followed. Jasmine had tried to lose their pursuit, but their last turn was a dead end. Little Jashugan was a born fighter, Shumira had said with glowing pride, but he had only been walking for a few months; when the Cybers cornered them, getting him out of harm's way was the most important thing.
She almost regretted it. With Skoll gone, she was left alone with the steel and leather criminals, circling and jeering. She stood, resisting her own nervous tension, one hand gripping the clean white cloth of her long, narrow parcel and the other inside it.
"F'get about tha dog'n tha squrt," one of the Cybers—a towering giant with arms as big around as Jasmine's waist and a sculpted steel face which reminded her of a bulldog—said to the others, grinning and speaking with malicious humor in a voice like the thundering of heavy machinery. "We gots what we's afta riiiight here."
Jasmine remained motionless. She imagined herself as a snake ready to strike, but could not resist wondering if she looked more like a startled deer.
"You, girlie, we knows who you is," the hulk continued, apparently unintimidated, and looming effortlessly. That was no great surprise, as he was easily twice her height and literally several times her weight. "An' we's gotta bone ta pick wit' tha bossman."
Jasmine glanced around at the murmurs and grumbles of agreement, her right hand's grip tightening inside the white cloth. Bossman? They must mean Uncle Kaos, she thought. They don't quite seem like disgruntled employees—maybe a gang of crooks or extortionists he put out of business?
"What'sa matter, meatbaby?" chortled another, the uniquely Scrapyard epithet deriding her complete lack of cybernetics. "Cat gotcher tongue?"
"Heh, looks like the li'l Farmgirl needs ta get introduced ta th'big city!" cackled the grating voice of a Cyber with an elongated, almost serpentine body. A sinuous limb, almost more pseudopod than arm, lashed out to loop about Jasmine's waist and thereby ensnare her—but the limb passed unhindered through the space she had occupied, ensnaring nothing and nobody.
Jasmine twisted in the air as she arced through the backflip; with same motion, there was a silvery gray flash upward and then across as she landed and spun into a crouch. Her aggressor's arms came loose near the shoulders from clean cuts where the metal had been cleft through with scarce resistance. Not a second later, with a flailing of his stubs, the Cyber's upper body fell backward with a clatter and a cry of surprise.
The others hesitated in surprise.
Where their helpless quarry had stood wide-eyed and motionless with a parcel, now she crouched with an elegantly curving sword held to the side, her other hand clutching the weapon's linen wrap; the impossibly sharp blade, its flat glittering with whirling patterns from hilt to point, stood ready to again cut metal like straw. Her stare seemed more like a cagy wolf than a startled deer, now, and her motionlessness much more predatory than paralytic.
"I don't want to hurt you," Jasmine explained calmly, finding her confidence regrowing with action and with the feel of the now-familiar sword her uncle Kaos had made for her and trained her to use, knowing Steel City was still no safe place. She cherished it both as a gift and for its similarity to the weapon her mother had once owned; to be armed as her mother had been left Jasmine aglow with that simple and unblemished pride born of adoration.
"But I will," she added, placidly and grimly, "if I have to."
The Cybers cursed and scoffed crudely. But none advanced.
Not until the largest—the one who had spoken first, who she thought of as Bulldog—snorted gruffly in disgust and roughly shoved one of the others at her. "Get'er, willya! All'a ya move!"
As that first hapless rogue staggered toward her, Jasmine shoved worry away and took refuge in the oldest things she had learned—the things she had learned from her mother, and trained into her arms and her legs. She was twisting in the air even as the Cyber half-stooped to reach for where she had crouched, the long stripe of linen which had been wrapped about her sword whipping behind her like a banner; on the downbeat, she kicked sharply off the face of her first attacker, spun again, and slashed neatly across the eyes of the second, blinded by her cloth draped past his face and more permanently by the damascene scimitar.
She spun, still, as she landed, twirling with her momentum as leaves dance on the wind—the principle characteristic of the art she learned from her mother. To oppose momentum directly wastes energy meant for the opponent; motion must be like the swift river flowing effortlessly, and the strike must be like the rock which splits the stream. That, she learned from her mother, was the principle of motion in Panzer Kunst.
The sword, however, she had learned from her Uncle Kaos, and he had shown her the way to make her blade cut cleanly as a rudder cuts the water. So it did as she spun on herself and the gracefully curving patterned steel arced upward, slicing into metal—deep enough to rend artificial lung with a sharp whistling hiss of leaking air. Where the strength of her body was limited, she was supported by the speed and keenness of her blade. It was enough, for her third aggressor—the one Bulldog had physically encouraged—staggered away, forgetting her in his breathlessness.
It won't kill him, she told herself, but he won't be fighting.
The weapon, her uncle had taught her, was to be wielded as though a part of her: a long, deadly finger—a potent extension of her will. Jasmine's will flashed in the alley's half-light, its motion hidden by the garish flutter and swirl of the white linen wrapping; resistance as she wheeled and danced, and another steel limb crashed to the ground, another Goliath toppled.
On her tongue, she could taste victory with a spice of wildness, a feral yet ironically pure flavoring. Was this what her mother had found in battle? Was it this euphoric sense of sincerity, of certainty, of her place in the cosmos?
When I see her again, Jasmine knew in her marrow, when I see my mother again, I'll be a warrior like her—a warrior to make her proud!
Without sight or sound, she felt the danger behind her and wheeled about, blade cleaving the air—but it cleaved nothing else, for a hand easily the size of her head grasped her by the forearm and squeezed until she yelped and dropped her weapon with a clatter.
"That's enough, meatbaby," growled Bulldog wrathfully, still clutching her arm painfully and plainly amused by her struggles. "You's real trouble, girlie—you and tha bossman. But we's gonna learn him. Him and you both! Gwahahahah!"
Jasmine glared up at Bulldog through rage, fear, and welling tears, her mind churning for an escape or attack. There were things she might still do—things her mother had been reluctant to let her know about, for they were dangerous to use with a fragile human body. Even so, her father was able to, so if she could just reach his head—
The thought was pierced and sundered by the wholly unurban sound of a wolf's howl. Even Bulldog's laughter faltered and his grip weakened, for that sound strikes always true to the heart even of a man of steel, whether it seems moving or terrifying.
Bulldog half-turned in a jerky motion of surprise, and Jasmine could see around him, at least a little.
"Skoll!" she cried in surprise, and not a little relief.
"You have skill, bravery, and—if I may say so myself—a fine sword, Jasmine," said the familiar voice of her uncle, Director General Kaos. As she leaned, she could see him, and the half-dozen Hunter-Warriors who flanked him, as well. Bulldog froze at the sight of several firearms trained on him, and slowly loosened his grip completely. Wasting no time, the Hunter-Warriors drew forward to lead him and his crew away with a fair share of jostling.
"But that was still reckless," Kaos added once they were alone—he standing, and she kneeling to hug and pet Skoll, who had delivered the child and then led the figurative cavalry to her. Jasmine glanced up at him with the reluctance born of knowing one's accuser, however merciful, to be right. He knelt, retrieving the sword he had made for his dear friend's daughter, but kept his hands quite to himself—he had learned better already than to try and touch the yearling wolf. That, he knew, was a familiarity allowed only to Jasmine.
"You don't have a Cyber's strength or speed," Kaos continued in a gentle yet castigatory tone, "nor armor plating. And knowing how to fight does not make you a warrior."
He smiled with a gentleness surprising beside the power she knew was within him, and touched her cheek consolingly as her eyes turned downward; she had forgotten his Psychometry—that by simply touching her sword, he had seen as though through her that which she had done and said and thought.
"Shh, now, don't look so wounded. I know what you aspire to; but I know, also, that your mother would never wish for you to know the coldness and sorrow a warrior learns. Make yourself not a warrior, Jasmine, not unless you must."
He stood quietly, offering the sword back to her, speaking again only after she abashedly accepted it and carefully returned it to its wrapping.
"I know your mother well, sweet child: to make Alita proud, you need only be her daughter."